A tignon is a type of headcovering. A large piece of material tied or wrapped around the head to form a kind of turban that somewhat resembles the West African Gele. It was worn by Creole women of African descent in Louisiana beginning in the Spanish colonial period, and continuing to a lesser extent to the present day.
This headdress was the result of sumptuary laws passed in 1786 under the administration of Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró. Called the tignon laws, they prescribed and enforced appropriate public dress for female gens de couleur in colonial society. At this time in Louisiana history, women of African descent vied with white women in beauty, dress and manners. One of their most standout physical attributes that separated them from their white female counterparts was their hair. Women of African descent would often adorn their hair with colorful jewelry, beads and other accents, demonstrating an exotic appearance which attracted the attention of white male suitors. Many of them had become the girlfriends and placées (openly kept mistresses) of white, French, and Spanish Creole men. This perceived threat to white women’s relationships with French and Spanish Creole men incurred the jealousy and anger of their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and fiancées.
With the looming threat to the social status of white women growing and the attention garnered as a result of the jewelry adorned hairstyles from women of African descent, action was required. To correct this, Governor Miró decreed that women of African descent, slave or free, should cover their hair and heads with a knotted headdress and refrain from “excessive attention to dress” to maintain class distinctions.
Historian Virginia M. Gould notes that Miró hoped the law would control women “who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who, in reality, competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.”
Miró’s intent of having the tignon mark inferiority had a somewhat different effect, according to historian Carolyn Long who noted: “Instead of being considered a badge of dishonor, the tignon…became a fashion statement. The bright reds, blues, and yellows of the scarves, and the imaginative wrapping techniques employed by their wearers, are said to have enhanced the beauty of the women of color.”
The women who were targets of this decree were inventive and imaginative. They decorated tignons with their jewels and ribbons, and used the finest available materials to wrap their hair. In other words, “[t]hey effectively re-interpreted the law without technically breaking the law”—and they continued to be pursued by men.
Tignons past and present
The tignon can be wrapped in many ways, and it was and is worn in a different way by every woman. Madras was a popular fabric for tignons among both free and enslaved populations, and has become iconic. Tignons were often created out of mis-matched scraps of undyed fabric given to slaves by their masters. The patchwork of material was made to appear festive. Tignons worn by free women of color or enslaved women in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Dominica even had hidden messages.
The tignon is experiencing a revival in Louisiana. It is found particularly in Creole-themed weddings. Celebrities such as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott continue to wear headdresses, as a celebration of Afro-American culture.